The Congressional content management system

Recent legislative drama highlights the absurdity of expecting people to make sense of complex texts that are evolving rapidly in high-stakes, high-pressure situations. What we have here is a classic culture clash, in this case between people who think in terms of paper documents and those who think in terms of electronic documents.

Washington is a paper-based culture. There are hopeful signs of change, and Bob Glushko spotted one of them here:

Based on the file name embedded in the pdf of the bill — O:\AYO\AYO08C04.xml — at least the people doing the publishing work for the bill are doing their best to save our tax dollars by creating the file using XML for efficient production and revision.

But there’s no public access to AYO08C04.xml. The government’s reflex is still to publish paper, or its electronic equivalent, PDF. So when the Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich tried to visualize the evolution of the Senate’s version of the bailout bill, he was reduced to printing out PDFs, arranging them on the floor, and marking them up with a yellow highlighter.

Recognizing the futility of this approach, he complained on a mailing list and Joshua Tauberer responded with a special GovTrack.us feature that extracts the text from the PDFs and provides electronic comparisons. John Wonderlich observes:

Josh’s page does what I failed to effectively do with paper: get a comprehensive view of what has changed between each copy of the bill.

As I noted with respect to my recent legislative excursion, every Wikipedia author/editor takes for granted the ability to review the entire history of an article, compare differences between any two versions easily and effectively, and collaborate with other interested parties.

Even more powerful change visualization is possible, as we saw when Andy Baio, in response to my LazyWeb request for animation of Wikipedia change history, sponsored a contest that Dan Phiffer won.

Is MediaWiki, the software that powers Wikipedia, a more capable content management system than the one used by Congress to produce and collaboratively edit AYO08C04.xml? I would hope that the internal taxpayer-funded system is actually delivering the benefits that Bob Glushko supposes it must be. But how can we be sure? Maybe somebody in the know can comment.

7 Comments

  1. There’s a start-up called MixedInk that gave a pretty impressive demo at OneWebDay/NYC. It’s a wiki-like document editing platform, but (from what I remember) each edit is more autonomous and can be voted on by other users.

    Wikis are so all-or-nothing when it comes to revision history. Voting amounts to a king of the mountain contest among contributors. It misses an opportunity for dialogue about the specific merits or problems with a contribution.

    It’s still in private beta, but here’s a link:
    http://www.mixedink.com/

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